Friday, May 20, 2011

Cooking on the Ice Planet Hoth with Darth Vader & the Gang: The French Laundry's Roulade of Duck with Creamed Sweet Corn and Morel Mushroom Sauce

My husband walked in right as I, kneeling subserviently on the floor, was bowing to touch my forehead reverently to the cover of the book.

'What is thy bidding, my master?' I rasped.

'What the hell are you doing?' he asked, his head tilted slightly. 'Is it yoga?'

'Ssshhhhhhhh,' I hissed in a tiny voice, swatting him away. 'Get out of here!' I resumed my forehead-bowing.

'He will join us or die, my master,' I solemnly intoned.

My name is Laurel Morley, and I do the bidding of Thomas Keller. That's famed American chef, restaurateur, multiple James Beard Award winner, and perhaps most importantly, cookbook writer Thomas Keller. And the book that I was so lovingly touching my forehead to? The French Laundry Cookbook. Chef Keller is undoubtedly the evil Emperor to my humble Darth Vader, and if he commands me to do it, it will be done. Make a delicate ice cream out of red beets? Pair beef cheeks with veal tongue? Reduce fresh herbs to an oily essence and vegetables to a fine powder? Poach a roulade of Savoy cabbage-wrapped duck breast, slice, and perch it on a bed of fresh creamed corn, topped with sautéed morels? As my man Vader would say, 'All too easy.'

This recipe begins with one of my favorite bright green, ruffly vegetables. A few individual leaves are lightly blanched to heighten their color and pliability, then chilled.

The next step involves trimming your duck breast (whole, boneless, about 12 oz.) into a neat and perfect rectangle, if you're Chef Keller, or into something approximating a trapezoid and involving some jigsaw-puzzling together, if you're me. Oh well. It's all going to roll together in the end, right?

Arrange the, perfect rectangle on the blanched cabbage leaves, which are resting on a large piece of plastic wrap. Roll up the duck in the leaves, then roll up the whole package in the plastic, twisting the ends tightly to secure. You then place this in the refrigerator while moving on to the next crucial step, pouring yourself a glass of wine and congratulating yourself on having wrapped expensive meat in delicate, damp leaves without tearing anything. Then you prepare the creamed corn.

'Creamed corn' is something that I have to stop right here and admit that I'd never so much as even tried in my lifetime. Don't get me wrong, I love corn in all its forms and preparations, but there's something about the phrase 'creamed corn' that screamed 'junior high cafeteria lunch in the 1950s' to me, something that would occupy a spot on the plate next to creamed chipped beef on toast, sloppy joes, or Jell-o fruit salad. Something dairy-laden, pasty and stodgy that I'd never eat, much less enjoy. And then the hologram of Chef Keller flickered to life before my very eyes.

'Soon you will see the power of my creamed corn,' he croaked from beneath his hood. 'My creamed corn is fresh and delicate, flavored only with butter, salt, pepper, and the simple starchy sweetness of corn itself. There isn't even a drop of cream in it. You will love this creamed corn. Search your feelings, you know it to be true....'

'Yes, my lord,' I mumbled, while getting out the food processor. The thing is, though,, Chef Keller was one hundred percent right. This isn't your mama's 1950s creamed cafeteria corn, it's a light, yet somehow buttery, kind of a corn porridge, even when made with frozen corn (as mine was, since fresh corn wasn't yet in season a few weeks ago).

You take most of the corn and whizz it in the blender until pulpy (reserving the rest to be blanched then added back into the mix later to provide some much-needed textural contrast and chew), then pass it through a sieve to extract what Keller calls 'corn juice.' This substance is then heated gently and whisked until it thickens (because it's full of corn starch, get it? It's science!), then butter, salt & pepper, and the remaining corn kernels are added to the mixture, which has miraculously become a rich, silken thing, full of sweetness and deep corn flavor. It's the humblest-sounding part of the entire dish, what with those luscious (duck) breasts and sexy, earthy morels competing for your attention, but I honestly have to say it might have been my favorite part. It binds everything together perfectly, although I could have eaten a bowl of it just on its own. Certainly we'll be making it again, to accompany just about anything.

After it has refrigerated for awhile, slide your duck roulade into a nice warm bath of 190-degree water and poach for around 8 minutes. While this is cooking, chop and sauté some morels* in butter. At this point, the recipe calls for you to add some finely minced parsley and vegetables, and a dash of the French Laundry's 'Quick' Duck Sauce. 'Quick.' Ha. I improvised**. We had half a box of chicken stock kicking around in the fridge, and some cubes of frozen demiglace in the freezer (which my husband, who is a superhuman hyper-foodie, makes on a regular basis, thank goodness), which I combined and reduced over heat and which tasted amazing in the end, duck sauce or no duck sauce.

* Second confession of the entry here, I did not use the fresh morels called for in the recipe, although I'm sure they would have been delicious. Why, you ask? Because instead of living in lush, cool Northern California, I live in the middle of the desert, and fresh morels are something we just cannot do. I used rehydrated dried morels, and they were wonderful, just don't tell Chef Keller.

** Aaaaannnd, now for my third shameful confession, I did not use the French Laundry's 'Quick' Duck Sauce, or any kind of duck sauce, for that matter. Why, you ask? Because as much as I love and live to serve him, Chef Keller sometimes speaks a language of his own making in which words have their opposite meaning. 'Quick' duck sauce, translates roughly into 'Start with your recipe on p. 172, find out you need duck sauce (turn to p. 228) which is neither quick nor simple and requires you to have procured duck bones (although the meat called for in the recipe is a boneless breast, and so that's what you bought, dammit) and made, far ahead of time, a reduced stock-based sauce (the stock for which, by the way, is veal stock (turn to p. 222), and which he also expects you to have made even further in advance somehow).' In fact, a lot of the recipes in the French Laundry cookbook read like those 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books I remember from when I was a kid, the ones that had you constantly turning to some new page further and further along in the book, chasing the labyrinthine plot down deeper and deeper rabbit holes. Anyway, this is getting to be a hellishly long footnote and, what am I, David Foster Wallace?? The point is, it's a bit hard to cook this way. Even for a Jedi.

To assemble, remove poached roulade from its plastic wrapping and slice, using a very sharp knife or light saber. Place a spoonful of leftover duck sauce (or demiglace reduction) in the center of the plate, then place a large spoonful of creamed corn on top of this. Nestle a slice of duck roulade in the center of this, then top with sautéed morel sauce.

Gaze upon it in wonder.

As the flickering image of a hooded, sinister Thomas Keller would agree, 'It is your destiny.'


  1. I am going straight home this evening and busting out the food processor and making that creamed corn! Now did you just use canned corn or did you actually buy ears of corn?

    ~Joe Dudo

  2. Hi Joe Dudo!!

    I used frozen corn, which is way better than canned, in my opinion. Although now that corn's coming into season, I'll be using that!

    p.s. - TOTALLY made this creamed corn for dinner tonight. Writing this gave me a craving! :)

  3. Love it. I have had creamed corn from a can and it is damn NASTY as all get out. Yuck. I will definitely have to try this version and give it a chance at redemption.

    I am also loving your confessions. I was like, where the heck did she find fresh morels??? LOL!

    The "choose your own adventure" bit made me laugh too.

    Finally, I love that you guys have demiglace in the freezer. Freaking awesome. This amateur foodie bows in reverence to your beautiful final result.

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